A case just can’t be made for Baz Luhrmann’s career as a filmmaker. There’s no reason based in reality that it should continue. The style he infuses into his films, which worked only for his flamboyant Moulin Rouge!, does not translate well to any of his other works, particularly this year’s The Great Gatsby. Let’s take a brief look at the moderately successful career of a director who is a bit overrated but more importantly needs to realize that it’s time to cash in his winnings and graciously bow out of the movie-making business.
Luhrmann’s first directorial effort, titled Strictly Ballroom, plays as a mockumentary following a ballroom dancing competition in the director’s native Australia. The subject matter is treated so seriously that it becomes comedic. That said, Strictly Ballroom’s more pressing problems involve the camera. Luhrmann revels in the freedom his camera offers and seems to become almost intoxicated with the possibilities it offers him. He would do well to note that more camera movement does not a better movie make. Perhaps if he took a class on the great director Yasujirō Ozu, who has made a number of masterpieces without any camera movement at all, he’d start to understand the error of his ways.
Moving forward in Luhrmann’s career, he decided to attempt an ‘update’ of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which he tried to transpose Shakespeare’s original words to a modern day world. Such an audacious project is definitely possible to pull off, but I believe it first requires the filmmaker to understand the source material, and there’s not a lot of evidence in this movie that makes a convincing argument for that. With the exception of a couple supporting characters, none of the actors in Romeo + Juliet understand how to deliver their lines, nor, I think, do they fully understand the meaning of the lines they deliver.
Luhrmann puts a lot of thought into the soundtracks he includes in his movies, and if he didn’t waste so much effort distracting his audiences with bloated set designs, close-ups, dizzying camera movements, or poorly-delivered dialogue, the songs could succeed as counterpoints to the onscreen conflicts.
In Luhrmann’s Australia, the director set out to make the Australian Gone with the Wind, with middling to ineffective results. Gone with the Wind succeeded in winning its audience’s hearts and record-breaking grosses on the principle of presenting old-fashioned melodrama on a grand scale. Australia set out to do the same but simply didn’t tell it anywhere near as well. It attempted to infuse mystical elements into its story, but those made it more formulaic in its execution than the material that inspired it.
Having just recently revisited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, which some argue is the ‘Great American Novel’, I went into the latest Gatsby screen adaptation with quite a few reservations. However, I knew it was possible that the movie could succeed in its own right, not just as a faithful adaptation to the novel. No scene in the movie convinced me that it could do even that. To me, the most important aspect of the novel The Great Gatsby is the way it expresses its characters’ inner conflicts. That’s all but lost onscreen in a production that puts enormous detail into set and costume design, which cannot cloud the fact that the man who helmed the project thinks he will be forever secure by adapting only the classics of all classics, from Shakespeare to Fitzgerald to Gone with the Wind. My money is on a Ulysses musical as Luhrmann’s next project, if no one attempts to talk him down from it.
Austin Landry is the president of the Classic Film Society.